Ad agencies have had their work cut out this year, faced with the challenge of hitting the right note for festivities in a pandemic. So who’s done it best? Our judges weigh up the ads from the retailers that matter, plus a couple of the best of the rest 

Our judges: Jemima Bird, CEO and founder, Hello Finch; Neil Godber, joint head of planning, Wunderman Thompson; Simon Lloyd, chief creative officer, Dentsumcgarrybowen UK and creative director of last year’s John Lewis/Waitrose ad; Rob Metcalfe, chairman, Richmond & Towers

 

Aldi

Total score: 13/20

JB: I love Kevin so good to see him back with his wonderfully cutesy friends. The story centres on a will-he-get-home-in-time-for-Christmas malarky with peril, tundra, a nod to ET, an NHS rainbow, Santa Claus and silliness. And willyness. I can’t be the only one that thinks Kev in a blanket is just a little bit phallic, right? When the line “Christmas isn’t the same without Kevin” is delivered, it feels like our Kevin is here to stay. I for one find that oddly reassuring. 4/5

NG: Aldi has once again successfully demonstrated the power of using distinctive assets brilliantly. Too often we see brands defaulting to the conventions of Christmas’ distinctive assets, getting lost in the process. 4/5

SL: I have never warmed to Kevin the Carrot. I know many have, but for me, his character lacks a little emotion. Aldi needed to give us something new and instantly memorable. Instead, I’m left wondering what they want me to do or feel. 3/5

RM: Bafflingly stupid and seemingly made on the premise that the vegetable Kevin is a sufficient enough draw to disguise a meaningless storyline, jokes not bad enough to be funny and non-sequiturs galore. Two lines stand out: “Christmas together with those you hold dear” is a brave punt in current circumstances; more encouragingly we’re told “Christmas without Kevin just wouldn’t be the same.” Too right. It would be many times better. Oh and apart from a logo, this ad appears to have nothing to do with Aldi. 2/5

Amazon

Total score: 15/20

JB: Last year’s Amazon Christmas ad was toilet. So I’m glad they came back in 2020 and bloodied Covid’s nose with something subtle and sublime. Something poignant and provocative. Something that hangs together and tells a story. They sort of had to get it right, too. Amazon’s done so well out of the pandemic they owed us something above and beyond. Something beautifully cast and wonderfully shot. The message, courtesy of Queen, is bob-on: the Show Must Go On. 4/5

NG: Threats of forgoing the big production in favour of something more modest and useful have not reached this great new ad for Amazon. The production offers a drama as good as any programming, as you are drawn into the ambition, dedication, repetition, disappointment, relationship and ultimate performance of the ballet dancer against the odds. 4/5

SL: It’s hard to ignore the production values and storytelling. And of course, the incredible talent that is the ballerina herself. But the undercurrent of a huge global corporation, which has profited enormously from the pandemic, saying the show must go on, feels a little tone deaf. With so many facing economic hardship and charities desperate for support, if anyone could have done less selling and more giving this year, it’s Amazon. 4/5.

RM: Amazon’s “the show must go on” tagline is probably the best of the bunch, nicely judging the resolve with which we all need to address an, at this stage, unknown Christmas. It’s a nicely filmed ad too, but the emotional power it packs is diluted by being set so obviously somewhere else. Looks like France or Belgium from the street scenes, but it’s clearly not here and so, as last year with its American families, it suggests that Amazon doesn’t really care about its UK customers. They can sell you a powerful torch though. 3/5

Argos

Total score: 15/20

JB: I’d give top marks for this Crimbo cracker if the creative wasn’t so conspicuously similar to last year’s. Maybe Argos is subliminally resetting the clock; like 2020 didn’t happen. Nonetheless, the Book of Dreams has delivered again, albeit with more sparkle (smile) and less Jim Kerr (grump) than 2019. Probably pedantry talking, but would granny really be thrilled to have her antique gold watch magically replaced with a generic digital thingy? 4/5

NG: Argos is out of the blocks with a wonderful production built to get everyone in the festive mood. The way Argos puts the children in charge with adults as audience works well to position Argos as the place kids will love, rather than a shop where parents wonder what to get them. 4/5

SL: I loved last year’s film. Simple. Entertaining. And built on a relevant and unique insight: The Book of Dreams. By comparison, this was a bit of a muddle. I remember when John Lewis mandated that we feature lots of product, so I understand the barriers to creativity. But this still feels off the mark, even if it is shot beautifully. 4/5

RM: All credit to the imagination that can turn the Argos Christmas Catalogue into ‘The Book Of Dreams’. If you can suspend your disbelief for long enough this is a well-made, expensive-looking ad with lots of nice moments and some good performances. But given the announcement that Argos is going to ditch its catalogues, it seems something of a swan song, and very odd that all this effort has gone into promoting a supposedly failed format. 3/5

Asda

Total score: 9/20

JB: No one will get fired for making this ad. It ticks boxes. It takes aim at Asda’s native customer base and fires a shot. A wooden, lumpy, lame shot. It just doesn’t capture the fluffy, cosy Christmas the creatives were aiming for and lacks any kind of substance. Tease out the backstory and maybe old miseryguts next door is raging at the happy-clappy family for shorting her on supplies during lockdown. No wonder she’s arsey about the Christmas lights. 2/5

NG: While the ad works in making a connection with shoppers using their regular superfan and his irrepressible family, who refuse to let coronavirus dampen their spirits, the work lacks real character and doesn’t communicate anything distinctive about Asda. 3/5

SL: I think it’s fair to say that Asda’s Christmas work has always felt a little raw compared to the other festive outings. The return of the pocket tap, a device created in similarly austere times, was a smart move. But I am not sure making it the size of a house and putting it in neon was the best decision. 2/5

RM: I suspect, like sprouts, you either loathe Sunny or hate him. Quite why a character so unappealing is fronting this ad, complete with his anti-social Christmas light display, is a mystery. It does have the strange – perhaps desired – effect of making Asda look cheap, though. Nevertheless, I’m with next-door Christine on this one, Sunny isn’t funny. 2/5

Central England Co-op

Total score: 8/20

JB: I’m trying to be nice. It’s a sweet ad with sweet kids but it’s a tried and tested smulchfest to get everyone to do something good to atone for their sins the rest of the year. Some people will like it and it’ll make them feel good about themselves and on this basis, smashing. In a week, everyone will forget it ever happened. 2/5

NG: It’s encouraging everyone to donate toys and food to stores, helping to ensure more children can enjoy a gift and meal this Christmas. It’s an incredibly worthy cause but the work leaves me feeling flat. Children offering soundbites of what they love about Christmas, transitioning into telling us that sharing is what makes it special, should make every parent feel compelled to act. Instead it feels too much like a corporate video without a clear role for the brand beyond acting as a location for donations. 2/5

SL: I get it. Kids telling you about the most important thing this Christmas in this most unusual of years. Sadly, it lacks craft and emotion. You can tell the kids are reading or, at best, repeating a prompt. Not a great observation if you are trying to create a feeling. 2/5 

RM: As a Christmas appeal it’s ok (though too long), but it doesn’t do much for the Central England Co-op. That just seems to be the place where you drop stuff off for the underprivileged. Technically it’s a bit lumpen: the same static background throughout; the strong whiff of coaching around some of the answers. It’s not actively offensive, but a little more creativity might have delivered a lot more impact. This selfless use of airtime to promote giving should be applauded, but as an ad that might do something for Central England Co-op, it doesn’t work. 2/5

John Lewis/Waitrose

Total score: 14/20

JB: The escapism of the dreamy animation is neutered by the groundhog day narrative and downbeat audio. We’re invited to travel to quirky new creative worlds yet the advert keeps us firmly handcuffed in our very sad reality. As a production it’s ambitious – and there’s a lot to like – but it’s ultimately quite a depressing show. I’m unsure where JLP wants me to land, and I suspect they don’t know either. Confusion and conflict – maybe, in fact, that’s the message. 3/5

NG: For years, John Lewis has helped to define the festive mood of the nation. So it’s a tougher problem for them than most brands to decide how to show up for this year. The film is a heartwarming tour through moments of exclusion, isolation and problems resolved, with touching gestures of generosity, brought to life in ways sure to bring a pang of nostalgia to most viewers. Not groundbreaking, but the right thing for them to do. 4/5

SL: I think the sentiment is a master stroke. They aren’t just going to sell. They are actually going to do some good in the world too. Brands such as Unilever have been doing it for years, but faced with a Christmas that’s going to be so tough for so many, JLP has made a smart move tackling food poverty and giving parents support. Perhaps what the films lack in terms of emotion, the campaign as a whole makes up for in terms of the difference it’s going to make to people’s lives? And my, how beautiful it is as always. 5/5

RM: It’s so disappointing that this ad doesn’t really work. I think it’s because the examples of sharing love and spreading happiness are so varied, emphasised by the changes in visual style. I’m sure we’re not supposed to take the action literally, but however hard you try, love and/or happiness isn’t going to get a stuck ball down from a tree. And why some pigeons are helping a hedgehog to fly is just baffling. Nice idea spoilt by second-rate creative. 2/5

Lidl

Total score: 14/20

JB: The whole premise of Lidl’s 2020 Christmas ad seems to be Kevin the Carrot is daft. They even stab him to death and devour him. Lidl could have nailed the same effect – and saved a few hundred thousand quid – by replacing the whole shebang with a bloke in a bad jumper saying Kevin the Carrot is stupid, over and over. 1/5

NG:  Arguably, only Lidl or Aldi have the right to strip out the carefully built brand value of Christmas in favour of value. This approach could have been grinchy, but the conceit is well balanced with wit. Emotional gravy has to be one of the phrases of the year! 4/5

SL: This parody could be a real moment for the brand. A wink in the eye as ‘emotional gravy’ is poured over turkey, a cheeky reference to the logo on Dad’s Christmas jumper, this makes me smile all the way through. Serving up food and honesty in equal measure – isn’t this the tone we were all after this year? 5/5

RM: Humour wins again for Lidl, subverting the run-of-the-mill fare of other retailers and, particularly pleasingly, sticking the knife (or fork) into Aldi’s Kevin. “We don’t need cutesy characters when carrots taste this good,” they say as the prongs go in. Quite right. And joy of joys, they try to sell us some products, some of which you might actually want to buy. It’s very nearly a Christmas you can believe in. 4/5

M&S Food

Total score: 9/20

JB: The mind boggles. I can just imagine the debate around the creative table. Voice one: ‘Guys do we mention the horrendous year? The lockdowns? The misery? We have to touch on it, don’t we?’ Voice two: ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Brian. That’s not what the people want. They want food porn… they want the dirty detail of our meaty crumb. Oh, and let’s drop the old music in, folk love the old music.’ Shudder, shudder, shudder. 1/5

NG: Whilst recognition is everything at Christmas, and M&S have justifiably stuck to their recognised tropes, the work feels restrained. The ads are part of a wider charitable initiative in which M&S donates to charities close to the heart of the narrator. It’s great to see M&S picking up and helping causes when donations have dropped off for charities, but the initiative is largely lost in the work. 3/5

SL: Somebody was pretty smart about this. Despite the celebrity talent, it will have cost very little money, clearly a key concern for the company right now. The music takes me right back to a comfortable place that I instantly link with the brand. And the voiceover feels premium and on-brand. A smart use of time and money, if lacking in more than a little cut through. 3/5.

RM: Two odd things about this ad. Firstly, Olivia Colman doesn’t sound herself – more like Jenny Eclair, which is a little alarming, and secondly the weird quartet of products showcased suggest M&S’s festive food offering is eccentric at best. It’s also very dull and very tired and unlikely to really grab anyone’s attention. How many times has M&S made an ad like this? Posh food as advertising wallpaper. 2/5.

Morrisons

Total score: 12/20

JB: Quick, easy, breezy. Two seconds in, Morrisons finds a neat way to tell viewers that, here, we’re not doing viruses and lockdowns. Instead we’re pouring double measures of glee and escapism … and if there’s ever a time for a few doubles it’s Christmas. With nods at charity, alternative families and shocking jumpers, it’s not the most complex ad you’ll see – but tonally it’s bang on the money. 4/5

NG: Whilst the positivity of the ad is welcome in today’s stressful climate, it doesn’t work hard enough to make Morrisons stand out from other supermarkets. I’m sure every brand would stand behind their ability to make Christmas special, but it would have been great to see why Morrisons. 3/5

SL: This year’s Christmas ads can be categorised into three Covid bubbles: those that face into it, those that ignore it, and those that tackle it with wit and humour. Morrisons does none of these things. Even with a hit record as the soundtrack, it’s bland. 2/5.

RM: The most traditional of the ads so far, Morrisons is clearly confident we’ll be out of lockdown, though still limited to gatherings of six, by Christmas. A nice nod to the tribulations of 2020 at the start, but after that it’s an ad that any retailer could have made during the last umpteen years. It’s not bad, but the effect is spoilt by a massive overpromise at the end. Whatever Morrisons does it is not ‘Making Christmas Special’. 3/5

Sainsbury’s

Total score: 15/20

JB: I love harking back to days-gone-by Christmases and, because making festive ads wasn’t easy this year, the format shows brilliant ingenuity. The vignettes feel like a genuine peek behind the curtain into real people’s real lives. And given we all hope to be home this Christmas, there’s something wonderfully unifying about the approach. Two points scream at me though. Firstly, literally no one calls any more, it’s digital all the way, even with the octogenarian parents. Secondly, as an LFC fan, how can we have Liverpool in the 80s and not a shell suit in sight? Fail! 4/5

NG: It’s an incredibly simple equation stated in a way you can’t argue with whilst leaving the thought open for people to fill in their own interpretations, memories and moments. The work is intimate, beautiful and touching, bringing to life the phone calls of grown-up children calling their parents, as they want to return home for Christmas in part because of the food rituals of Christmas. It truly connects with our emotions and desires around this Christmas above all. Well done Sainsbury’s. 5/5

SL: True, authentic and heartfelt, when it comes to emotion (and great gravy), Sainsbury’s has done it brilliantly. What I admire so much is not only the authenticity in their voices, but also that they brought it right back to food each time. It’s really hard to do and the execution could have gone either way. The reality of a phone call also gives it relevant Covid context without the ‘Zoom screen’ we’re all so tired of seeing. 5/5

RM: Peculiar ads from Sainsbury’s. The first, using the very “emotional gravy” that Lidl’s ad refers to, is just boring. Why the hell should anybody be interested in these people and their gravy? The second appears to focus on a family’s dead father – whether a Covid casualty or not isn’t made clear – but it’s not going to have you dancing in the Sainsbury’s aisles. Perhaps they’re just too busy and are trying to discourage us from shopping with them. 1/5

Tesco

Total score: 18/20 and 2020 winner!

JB: If Morrisons got big props for swerving the darkness to tap the lighter side of Christmas, Tesco totally raises the bar. By sending up the idiosyncrasies of 2020, Tesco gifts us permission to exhale; to find relief and laughs in the narrow grooves between the chaos and the upset. From the bog-roll stockpilers to the home-school amateurs, we’re absolved of our misdeeds, guilt and angst just in time for Christmas. Thank goodness. 5/5

NG: Tesco has brought fun and swagger to this year’s Christmas, bringing the brand closer to the people it serves. Not in an overly earnest or sentimental tale, but on a fun tour through all the self-recriminating things we have, and haven’t, done. The insight is strong and the tone spot on. Top skills. 4/5

SL: The best way I can describe this is neat. Tesco has tackled Covid with a lovely strategic thought: in such a brutal year, no one deserves to be on the naughty list. I did smile at some of the observations, admitting Covid ‘sins’ like stockpiling toilet paper, not teaching the kids or ‘shock’, not donating to Captain Tom. But in a year when humour plays especially well, perhaps it could have been funnier still? 4/5

RM: This is how to take 2020 and turn it into a winning Christmas ad: with a first-rate script and some brilliant performances. It’s very funny, and perhaps surprisingly, packs more emotional clout by making fun of how we are dealing with Covid than all the soppy weepy drippy tip-toed skirting-round-the-issue schmaltz of other ads. And I’m personally very glad there’s no naughty list. 5/5

McDonald’s

Total score: 12/20

JB: Bloody hell, what’s going on here? Has dad died or just walked out? Is the kid just so obnoxiously spoiled that only a Big Mac will awaken his inner child? I get the message – let’s go back to the snuggly, fluffy, halcyon days of innocence, carelessness and wonder. A different execution would have landed just fine. But here we combine miserable story, miserable song, missing dad. It’s going to take more than a double cheeseburger and fries to cheer me up. 1/5

NG: Anyone with growing children will relate to the tug of war between their creeping scepticism about Santa and maturing interests in technology versus the playful fun inner child that remains. While the concept of relating back to an inner child is not new, the well observed Pixar-esque animation is carried along by the evocative soundtrack. The transformation feels genuine and true, giving us a reminder that despite the fact we grow old, magic and innocence can be rekindled. 4/5

SL: Having a 13-year-old son at home, I can definitely relate to the McDonald’s film. Technology can make kids feel like they have to be more grown up than they need to be, and the inner child device, while tricky to get right, works. Whether McDonald’s has a true role in this debate or not, the story resonates and sidesteps Covid nicely. 5/5 

RM: However poor your parenting skills, you can turn a little scrote into a dream child with a trip to McDonald’s apparently. That’s clearly the message the nation needs right now – bribe ‘em with junk food for a happy Christmas. Meanwhile, memo to all creatives: stop making ads with big-eyed Disney-style faces. It doesn’t make the characters more appealing, it just makes them, and the whole scenario, a bit weird. 2/5

Walkers

Total score: 8/20

JB: I still find Walkers’ participation in the Christmas thing baffling and this year it’s especially senseless. Walkers have released festive sausage roll flavour crisps (surely pigs-in-blankets would make more sense?) to help foodbank charity The Trussell Trust. I’m all for that, but crisps and/or sausage rolls in the name of full stomachs and nutrition? That feels messed up. A handful of celebrities, pun-laden songs and old Gary stuffing crisps up his Christmas jumper. Miss. 1/5

NG: It’s very good to see Walkers doing good in supporting the Trussell Trust at a time when charitable donations will be finding it tough. The ad follows a reliable recipe for the brand: celebrities, new limited edition flavour and Gary Lineker. What’s more interesting is their choice of celebrity in pastry-loving LadBaby. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but previous successes and the need for something cheery suggests many will enjoy it. 3/5

SL: This ad does two smart things: it uses humour to make us feel something and tackles food poverty by giving to the Trussell Trust. Reining in last year’s Mariah spend with the more budget-friendly and relatable LadBaby, the fleeting celebrity cameos and comedy moments will stand up to repeated viewings, by which time the sausage roll spin on your favourite carol will be well and truly stuck in your brain. It’s a bit bonkers, but isn’t everything right now? 3/5 

RM: Look Walkers, if you want to give money to charity, just give some money to charity and save us the nausea of Z-list celebs singing about your newest foul flavour. This is just a horrible, disjointed mish-mash of all-round and rather cynical unpleasantness. Christmas is not ‘Crispmas’, nor should it ever be. 1/5